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This is part of a chapter from my book, Getting Down to Brass Tacks – My Adventures in Jazz, Rio, and Beyond:

Leon Collins

Leon Collins

I was still unhappy with my piano playing. I’d had a few gigs off and on since I had quit the Top of the Hub, but I felt there was something wrong with my sense of time. It wasn’t swinging the way I wanted it to. Charlie Banacos had showed me some methods to get my lines to sound more swinging, but I felt it wasn’t just my hands and arms that were the problem (and I’m sure he knew that, too)—it was my whole body and the way I felt about it. I’d never been particularly graceful, not good at sports, and not much of a dancer, either. One night Mad, Hil and I were watching TV and the Nicholas Brothers were on.

“Look at the way they move,” I said. “If that isn’t jazz in motion I don’t know what is.” The girls were fascinated, too, especially with the way they tapped up and down the stairs. I’d seen lots of tap dancers on TV, of course, like Shirley Temple and Gene Kelly, but there was something different about the way these guys danced. I wanted to find out what it was that gave them that fluid, relaxed, hip way of moving, so I decided to find myself a tap dance teacher. I really thought it might help me with my piano playing.

I knew I didn’t want one of those Broadway types that flailed their arms around and made big dramatic sweeps across the floor, so I asked around and someone mentioned Leon Collins. They said he was one of the old-time “hoofers” like Honi Coles and the Nicholas Brothers and the Copasetics, so if I wanted to learn the real deal, I should look him up. It turned out that Leon was giving tap lessons in a studio not far from the Monitor newsroom, and his classes were all jammed, mostly with white women. I signed up, and got Mad and Hil into classes, too. Now we were the tap family.

Leon was skinny as a toothpick and loose as a mop, with a big, toothy smile, and he loved his “girls”—many of whom were well past middle age. He also played the guitar and sang a little, and was a walking jazz machine. There was always a tune running around in his head, accompanied by some new tap step he could fit with it.

Before long, Leon and I were having long conversations about music, and I’d stay after class to show him something on the piano or watch him work out an improvised line on the guitar. I turned him on to some tunes he’d never danced to, like Randy Weston’s jazz waltz “Little Niles” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” both which became part of his regular show repertoire. Leon was wide open to new ideas, and even made up some tap routines to a couple of classical pieces.

I enjoyed the tap classes and they really did help me with my rhythm, both on the piano and in general. But the best thing that came out of my association with Leon was that he asked me to be his musical director. This is how I came to be involved with many, many tap dancers over the years and be known as the “tap dancers’ piano player.” I got to know Chuck Green of Chuck and Chuckles, James “Buster” Brown, Leslie “Bubba” Gains and Charles “Cookie” Cook of the Copasetics, Bunny Briggs (who had danced with Duke Ellington), Jimmy Slyde, Sandman Simms, and then later on Greg Hines and Savion Glover.

The older tappers were all Leon’s contemporaries and colleagues, and I even got to play with some of them, because of Leon. Once he took me to a jazz club in Harlem and Chuck Green was there. I sat in to play for him, and he danced in his socks! Everyone kept shushing me so they could “hear” his steps…shh, shh, softer, softer!

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Sharing my book…

Cover_Getting_Down_to_Brass_Tacks_DuncanMy memoir, Getting Down to Brass Tacks – My Adventures in Jazz, Rio, and Beyond was my original incentive for starting this blog. The book was published in 2012, and has done well in terms of excellent, thoughtful reviews, for which I’m very grateful!

Now, as I tentatively begin a sequel to my book, I’d like to share some segments from Getting Down to Brass Tacks. Here’s the first one…from my childhood:

At school I had the reputation of being a weakling and a scaredy cat. First, because I was really small and second, because I was the only kid in my class who wore glasses. The nickname I’d acquired in kindergarten back on Long Island, “four eyes,” had persisted with a vengeance. The older boys and tougher girls teased me mercilessly, not just about the glasses but because I had been blessed with Pop’s aquiline nose, for which I earned the lovely moniker “hawk beak.”

Like any other kid, I wanted to be liked, to be popular, but I had this sinking feeling that it was never going to happen. When I was in the fifth grade I had a teacher named Miss Paquin. The kids all called her “old maid,” but I thought she was very “with it” because every day she used to have us push all the desks and chairs to the sides of the classroom to make a dance floor. Then she’d drag out the record player and put on some music and we’d all partner off and start dancing. She taught us some basic steps and encouraged the shyer boys to ask the girls to dance. She expected the boys to ask all the girls, not just the cute, popular ones like Juney Meyers, with her silky black hair and white angora sweaters, so I had plenty of chances to get out on the floor and cut a rug. Sometimes Miss Paquin would even set up square dances for us.

I remember there was a boy in the class named John Rice who had decided one day to put some firecrackers inside a tin can in his back yard and set them off. He ended up blowing off all the fingers of his left hand. None of the girls wanted to dance with him because they’d have to hold onto his stumpy hand, so I always ended up dancing with John. It kind of gave me the creeps at first, but I got used to it. At least he was a boy and had asked me to dance.

I remember becoming more clothes conscious around this time. Maybe it was because of the dances, but I wanted to look nice. To my mind, Ma had no idea what clothes would look good on me. Sometimes she let me and Bertie pick out our own things, but I remember she bought us some ugly, clunky loafers that I hid in the back of my closet and avoided wearing as much as possible. She still sewed a lot of our clothes, but at least she let us pick out the patterns and the cloth. One of my favorite outfits was a purple corduroy vest and skirt—Ma didn’t make it, she let me choose it from a catalog. I liked the name of the color in the catalog: “wood violet.” But my most favorite outfit of all was my red felt circular skirt with the poodle appliqué on it that I liked to wear with my brown and white saddle shoes. I went through a crinoline phase, too, and even had a hoop skirt for the short time that the rage lasted. Some of the girls I knew in high school wore dog collars on their ankles, on the right ankle if you were going steady and on the left if you were available, but I never got up the nerve to put one on my left ankle.


To purchase the paperback and Kindle versions of the book, click here:

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My book

Marquis 2Wow, times sure flies…it’s been a couple of years since my book, Getting Down to Brass Tacks – My Adventures in Jazz, Rio, and Beyond was published. I’ve been happy with the feedback I’ve gotten, and grateful to the folks who have written reviews for Amazon: so far, 34 5-star and 2 4-star reviews.

A lot of people don’t seem to want to write reviews. I understand. I sympathize. I don’t like writing them, either. But now that I’m an independent author, I realize how important they are. They’re the life-blood of the independent author. They are the reason that people get curious about your book and might want to read it. So, If you read my book and liked it, I will love you forever if you review it for Amazon. 🙂

People often ask me if I’m writing another book or planning on writing one. I did actually make a couple of abortive attempts at writing some sort of sequel, but finally came to the conclusion that not enough time has gone by in my life since I wrote the first book to have anything substantial to say. What about a book on some other topic? they ask. Well, I thought about taking some of my philosophical musings from this blog and putting them into book form, but the problem is that my ideas keep changing, so I don’t want to carve them in stone and then look back in a couple of years and think, “Sheesh, that was weird…why did I ever say that?” So then they ask, “What about a novel, you know, a work of fiction?” I confess that I have never been able to write fiction. My career as a writer was in journalism, and I’ve never, ever been able to make up stories. I wish I could. I have endless admiration for people who can. Poetry? Maybe…not sure mine is “good enough,” whatever that means…Marilyn Monroe

This is not to say that I won’t write another book. My mind is open. Who knows, maybe something will pop into it that will grab me and I’ll pull out my MacBook and get busy. Meanwhile, I’m just living, working on some musical projects, and pondering life with a Capital L…

If you’d like to read my book, clock on the BOOK tab above for info about how to get it, and I’ll be looking forward to your review!

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That’s the way things were in Rio…

Rio in the 1990s….
“The thing you have to understand about Rio is that the middle class—and yes, there is a large middle class—lives in very close proximity to the poorest of the poor because the favelas are usually in the hills up over the “regular” neighborhoods, which are referred to as the asfalto (asphalt, because they have paved sidewalks, unlike many favelas). But the favelas are a world apart—they essentially have their own “government”—the law in the favelas is the law of the gun, and many of the men and boys are armed. Rio itself is divided into two parts—the South Zone, which includes the famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, where the middle and upper classes live, and where the tourists go; and the North Zone, a vast area where both lower and middle class people live. There are favelas in both areas, steadily growing larger and more widespread.
Some of the samba schools we played in held rehearsals in the favelas, where scrawny teenage boys, their eyes flat and expressionless, with old men’s faces from sniffing glue, stood holding machine guns with the nonchalant air of seasoned soldiers. The drug dealers ruled in the favelas, along with the police, and sometimes it was hard to tell which was which.”
This is an excerpt from my book, “Getting Down to Brass Tacks -My Adventures in Jazz, Rio, and Beyond. You can get the book here:


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Free book offer!

Cover_Getting_Down_to_Brass_Tacks_DuncanI’m sure if any of you, my readers, have self-published a book (and I bet some of you have), you’ve probably discovered that the process of self-promotion can be difficult, time-consuming, confusing, frustrating, and sometimes downright embarrassing! Creative people often just don’t feel an affinity for marketing strategies, but in today’s world we have to, shall I say, “suck it up.”

All of us authors want people to read our book, obviously. That’s one of the reasons (although not the only reason) I started this blog. And the people who have read my book really seem to like…even love it. I have 29 5-star reviews on Amazon, and some of those wonderful reviews made me see things in my book that I myself hadn’t seen before.

But here’s the bottom line: most people don’t want to pay for a book by an unknown author, no matter how interesting it may look. I’ve been wanting to offer my book for free, but I had my e-book published through BookBaby, and they have a no free book policy. However, about a month ago, a fellow self-published author (thanks, Meg Dendler!) posted that she was offering one of her books for free on Smashwords. I looked into it, and decided to go for it.

So….Getting Down to Brass Tacks – My Adventures in the World of Jazz, Rio, and Beyond is now available at Smashwords in Kindle, e-pub, and PDF formats, or you can just read it on line…for FREE.

Here’s the link:

OK, I’m gonna take a nap while you all go on over there and snap it up. 🙂



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Christmas book sale now!

Hi everybody! The holiday season is upon us, and several people have mentioned that they’re buying multiple copies of my book to give as gifts. Sooooo…I’ve put both the paperback and Kindle versions on sale until Christmas. christmas book bearYou can get the book here:

It now has 27 5-star reviews! Check out the latest one at the above link, or go directly to the full review on Jazz History Online:


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Update on my book

My autobiography, “Getting Down to Brass Tacks – My Adventures in the World of Jazz, Rio, and Beyond” now has 26 reviews on Amazon – all of them five stars!

If you haven’t read it yet, the book is available on many of the international Amazon sites, including the US site:

Also at Barnes and Noble, for Nook users:

At the iBookstore:   

And at Scribd:

The paperback version is available only at Amazon US.

Get ready for a wild romp through the life of a seeker after the truth!






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Summer reading…

…that is, if it’s summer where you are!Woman%20reading%20in%20hammock0001

Here’s the perfect book to read in your hammock, lying on the beach, or just lounging in the back yard. Lots of adventures…funny, not-so-funny, and some that will undoubtedly make you think of things from your own life. You’ll feel like you’re having a friendly chat with me. So grab a lemonade and a copy of my autobiography!

The paperback is on sale at Amazon right now, and here are links to a couple of other places where you can buy it:


Barnes and Noble:  

Enjoy your summer reading!







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This ‘n that…

Since my book, “Getting Down to Brass Tacks,” was published, I haven’t written here as often as I’d like to. Boy, promoting your own book takes lots of time!

As those of you know who keep up with me here, I have put both the paperback and Kindle versions of my book on sale at Amazon. However, the prices will go back to normal soon, probably by the end of this month, so if you want a discount copy, better hurry up!

Here’s the link:

Also, if you’ve read or are planning on reading the Kindle/e-book version, there is a link to the photos that go with the book in the Appendix at the end. Here’s the link if you want to see them now!

My grandson Bobby (alias Mr. Bumpus) is included in the photos. He’s grown a lot since then! Here’s a pic of him at his first birthday party: Bobby eating cake







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My book is on sale!

The paperback version of my book is now on sale for $7.77 and the Kindle version for $2.99 on Amazon! This sale won’t last forever, so if you want a copy, now’s the time!
So far, “Getting Down to Brass Tacks” has 20 5-star reviews. Feel free to add your own review, and if you’re on Facebook or G+ or Twitter, and feel like sharing, I’d be very grateful. Here’s the link:


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